Using Straw for Mulch

Gardening with straw saves time, money, and sanity!

June 8, 2021
Straw turns gold-Thinkstock

Hay bales are inexpensive garden helpers!

Photo of hay bale by Thinkstock

No, I’m not Rumpelstiltskin, the cranky gnome in a Grimm fairy tale; I can’t spin straw into gold.  But, using straw as mulch saves me money, crops, and my sanity, which is golden to my thinking. See the benefits of using straw as mulch—plus, see how to start a weed-free straw-bale garden!

Straw bales are inexpensive gold for gardens. I only pay $4 a bale, and the straw saves me hours of weeding, watering, and worrying. I get it from a farmer nearby.  Numerous garden centers stock straw, too.  Bales are huge; one will usually cover the garden.  Just be sure that you are buying straw, not hay.  Organic hay bales are harder to find; just avoid any that have been treated with consistent herbicides.

Everything in the vegetable garden is mulched with a 6-inch layer, including blueberries, Alpine strawberries and cranberries.  I use a foot or two of straw atop the potato bed to grow clean potatoes that can be easily harvested.  Tubers form in the straw and crops are always bigger when I use the straw mulch.

Straw is Not Hay

First, let me explain that straw is not hay. You don’t want to use hay, as it will cause nightmares and plenty of weed pulling. Hay is a grass that is primarly grown and cut for lifestock. It is difficult to cut hay without at least some of the grass going to seed.

Straw are the dry hollow hay stalks remaining after cereal crops such as wheat or barley have been harvested they contains few or no seed heads, especially when compared to hay.”  (University of Maryland Extension Service). Straw stalks don’t compact or mat.  They’re also slow to decompose and don’t tie up nitrogen or other nutrients in soil, making the perfect mulch.

Potato crops are huge when grown in a foot or two of straw on top of the soil.  The blueberries in the background benefit from straw mulch, because their roots are shallow, and the plants are moisture lovers.

Water Less Often

A thick blanket of straw keeps the moisture in soil, slowing evaporation radically.  Watering the garden once a week will be the norm, rather than every day or two. They dry out a lot slower in hot sunny weather.

If you live in an area of the country that is experiencing rainfall shortage this summer or drought, straw mulch is gold!  I do. We’ve received only a tenth of normal rainfall and had a huge snow deficient last winter.  The ground is so dry, it’s cracking in spots.  But, I water the vegetable garden only once a week, despite high temperatures and lack of rain.

Reduce Weeds

Straw blocks out the sun, preventing most weeds from germinating and growing. First, make sure your weeds are gone from your garden bed. Then lay down the straw immediately. 

If you’ve already seeded your vegetables, don’t lay straw on top of the seeds or seedlings. But everywhere else there is exposed ground, lay down a nice thick layer of straw

It will not only keep weeds from growing, but also keep the soil moist, soft and workable.

Reduce Pests and Diseases

Straw also saves crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash from developing blossom-end rot and cat-facing; blueberries from shriveling; and sweet peppers from turning hot. 

Soil moisture stays even and calcium can be transferred from the soil to tomatoes easily, preventing the diseases.

Straw mulch at the base of tomato and pepper plants also prevents that transfer of soil-borne diseases such as early blight to plant leaves. No water splashes up from the soil to leaves, because the straw absorbs it.

A thick straw mulch also fosters the growth of large pumpkins, winter squash and watermelons. The mulch provides a clean blanket upon which melons and pumpkins can grow unblemished.

Increase Nutrients

Straw will decompose like any other organic material but they’ll decompose a lot slower. As straw rots, it releases nutrients, feeding the plants growing in it. Straw actually makes your garden better. Genius, right?

Straw-Bale Garden

Of course, you can also make instant planters with straw! Do you struggle with poor quality soil? Wage a never-ending war with weeds? Or do you simply want an instant, fuss-free vegetable bed? In this video, see how to grow vegetables successfully in straw bales. 

Have you used straw for mulch?  What other materials do you use to hold moisture in and prevent diseases?

About This Blog

A lifelong gardener shares the endless lessons she’s learned from her garden over the years, in hopes of making your own gardening just that much easier! Read along for advice, photos, and more.